The Trump/Bernhardt Plan for Extinction in the CA Bay-Delta

After spending the past several months reviewing the Bureau of Reclamation’s biological assessment (BA) for the Trump Administration’s rewrite of the 2008 and 2009 biological opinions protecting Delta Smelt and salmon in the Bay-Delta watershed, it’s becoming clear that this is a plan for extinction. That’s bad news for thousands of salmon fishermen, farmers in the Delta, and anyone who cares about California’s native fish and wildlife.

Despite voluminous scientific evidence demonstrating the need to increase protections for endangered and threatened fish species, the Trump Administration is proposing to greatly weaken protections in order to increase water supply for the Westlands Water District and other water contractors. Across the Central Valley Project (CVP)—from Shasta Dam to the Delta, on the Stanislaus River, on the American River, and on the Sacramento River—the biological assessment proposes to weaken and eliminate most of the protections required by the existing biological opinions. 

For instance, at Shasta Dam, the Feds propose to eliminate numerous requirements protecting salmon, particularly endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed an amendment to the biological opinion in 2017 that would strengthen existing requirements, but the Bureau of Reclamation refuses to implement that amendment and instead proposes to:

  • Eliminate carryover storage requirements, which help ensure there is water in storage at the end of the year to maintain water temperatures and water supply for people if the following year is dry;
  • Eliminate requirements to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service before issuing initial allocations of water to CVP contractors, which was required to make sure that early allocation decisions did not drain cold water in the reservoir needed for salmon;
  • Delay making water temperature plans until May, after the Bureau has already begun draining the reservoir for deliveries to Sacramento River Settlement Contractors (note that the biological assessment does not analyze the effects of full contract deliveries to these contractors, instead only modeling their historic deliveries);
  • Eliminate requirements to evaluate providing fish passage above Shasta Dam (and eliminating potential fish passage at other CVP dams), to help sustain salmon in the face of climate change;
  • Raise the height of Shasta Dam, despite the fact that this proposal would violate state law and the fact that state and federal agencies have raised numerous objections that this proposal would harm salmon and other native fish and wildlife, as well as destroying the sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe (note that the biological assessment also fails to actually model or analyze the effects of the dam raise, even as the text states it is included); and,
  • Eliminate requirements to manage Shasta Dam to meet water temperatures for salmon, instead adopting a four tier system that would allow the Bureau to fail to meet water temperatures for salmon and instead rely on hatcheries and other interventions that fail to protect salmon in the wild.

As a result, the biological assessment predicts that nearly two thirds of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon will be killed by lethal water temperatures in critically dry years, and that lethal water temperatures will kill more endangered winter-run salmon in every water year type than the maximum mortality levels proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2017.

WY Type

Temp Dependent Mortality – 2017 Shasta RPA target

Temp Dependent Mortality – 2019 BA modeling

Wet

Less than 3%

5%

Above normal

Less than 3%

4%

Below Normal

Less than 3%

11%

Dry

Less than 8%

10%

Critical

Less than 30%

61%

On the Stanislaus River, the Bureau proposes to weaken or eliminate several requirements protecting steelhead and salmon.  Most notably, while the State Water Resources Control Board in December 2018 adopted new standards that would require existing or higher flows on the Stanislaus River to protect and restore salmon, the Bureau proposes to reduce flows for fish and wildlife by nearly 100,000 acre feet in above normal and wet years. The BA also proposes to eliminate existing water temperature requirements to protect salmon and steelhead (instead promising to “Study” water temperature management), weakens existing dissolved oxygen requirements for steelhead and salmon, and eliminates other habitat restoration requirements in the 2009 biological opinion.

Similarly, on the American River, the Bureau proposes to weaken instream flow requirements protecting salmon and steelhead by eliminating requirements for flows greater than 2,000 cfs (as proposed in the 2017 Lower American River Flow Management Standard) and eliminating the carryover storage requirements at Folsom reservoir in that standard. 

In the Delta, the Bureau proposes to weaken or eliminate pumping restrictions and Delta outflow requirements that protect salmon, Delta Smelt, and other species, including:

  • Eliminating April/May restrictions on pumping that protect steelhead (Action IV.2.1 in the 2009 biological opinion), which also protects numerous other species;
  • Eviscerating Delta pumping restrictions in both biological opinions, which currently establish a maximum limit of -5,000 cfs in Old and Middle River (known as OMR reverse flows, as water effectively flows upstream towards the pumps instead of naturally downstream towards the ocean) instead allowing the Bureau to exceed these limits during any storm event (defined as “some precipitation” in the Central Valley), with no upper limit on magnitude, duration, or frequency of these OMR reverse flow waivers (note that the modeling in the BA grossly underestimates the frequency, magnitude, and duration of allowable OMR waivers);
  • Gutting the Fall X2 action in the Delta Smelt biological opinion, which required higher Delta outflow in the fall that contributed to a 10-fold increase in the Delta Smelt population when it was (mostly) implemented in 2011;
  • Reducing Delta outflow in the summer months of drier years, despite the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service has previously found that increased summer and fall outflow is needed to prevent extinction and that the proposed Delta outflow levels likely would not meet salinity standards at the pumps or for farms in the Delta;
  • Reducing Delta outflow in the winter and spring compared to current levels, while the State Water Resources Control Board considers requiring increased Delta outflow in these months. Reducing Delta outflow in these months will harm longfin smelt (listed under the California Endangered Species Act), Delta Smelt, green and white sturgeon, and other species; and
  • Eliminating requirements to install the Head of Old River Barrier and the Georgiana Slough non-physical barrier, both of which are intended to keep migrating salmon and steelhead out of the South Delta.   

Increased pumping in the Delta will reduce survival of salmon migrating through the Delta, and reducing Delta outflow will harm numerous species and threatens water quality for farms and cities as well.

In addition to these specific operational requirements, the BA also proposes to eliminate procedural requirements for the Bureau of Reclamation to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service on operations, and for those fishery agencies to have the final say on pumping restrictions and other protections. These procedural requirements were included in the 2008 and 2009 biological opinions because in the 2000s, the Bureau of Reclamation repeatedly refused to implement protections for endangered fish and wildlife that were recommended by the biologists.

As if that’s not enough, the BA also:

  • Proposes to eliminate compliance with section 3406(b)(2) of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, even though this is a statutory obligation; 
  • Includes virtually no biological modeling of the effects of this proposal (other than the water temperature and mortality data noted above), cherry-picks scientific information and ignores much of the recent the scientific information documenting the need for increased flows and improved temperature management, including the Delta Smelt life cycle modeling work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
  • Includes numerous problems in CalSim modeling, such as: not analyzing the effects of full contract deliveries to Sacramento River Settlement Contractors; not analyzing the effects of raising Shasta Dam; modeling OMR waivers that are inconsistent with the project description; and modeling water storage in Oroville Reservoir being drawn down below dead pool levels in nearly every critically dry year; and,
  • Compares the impacts to a fake environmental baseline that assumes that existing dams are not operated and the CVP and SWP do not deliver any water, even though this would violate the Bureau’s water rights and is not consistent with the Endangered Species Act consultation handbook (which requires that the baseline include ongoing operations of the dams and water projects, since those operations would occur in the absence of this consultation). 

Together, the modeling in the BA indicates that rolling back these protections will increase water exports to Westlands and other CVP contractors by more than half a million acre feet of water. But those increased water diversions will result in devastating impacts on California’s native fish and wildlife, and the fishing jobs that depend on their health. 

Having failed to overturn the 2008 and 2009 biological opinions in litigation as an attorney for the Westlands Water District, and having largely failed to overturn those biological opinions as a Congressional lobbyist for Westlands (where he lobbied to enact the WIIN Act, which has largely not been implemented because doing so would violate state law), David Bernhardt is now trying a third time to overturn these biological opinions from his position atop the Interior Department.

In June, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will issue biological opinions that express their conclusion whether this proposal will jeopardize the continued existence of these species under the Endangered Species Act. KQED obtained documents under FOIA showing that the Trump Administration is cutting corners and shortcutting science in this process. While this proposal won’t fly under state law, there will be tremendous political pressure by David Bernhardt and others to force NMFS and USFWS to rubber stamp the proposal on the federal level.  

If California wants a healthy Bay-Delta ecosystem and salmon fishery, and doesn’t want to watch salmon go extinct, the State needs to use its authority to stand up to the Trump Administration.

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Director, California River Restoration, Water Division, Nature Program

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